Surf’s Up.

Crossing the bay would take only an hour or so. It was early enough I thought it was safe taking off my shirt. I had my eyes closed, trying to send good thoughts to a friend who was at that moment on an operating table. But the water reflected the sun and I was getting burned.

The heat in Jaco was intense. There was no breeze. Air conditioning at the first hotel was an empty promise, the main draws were beach and bar, neither a draw for me. So I left and found a place downtown. Though I tried to walk near the waves perfect for surfing, my sunburn sent me back inside to the deep shade.

White men on the street had a furtive air. Maybe their wives were all shopping, or maybe their wives didn’t come down for the sport fishing or the surfing. Groups of men wore similar clothes, like the feathers of a flock of birds. This flock wore black polo shirts with brown shorts and flip flops. That flock wore striped business shirts with rolled up sleeves, tan shorts and tennis shoes. Over there getting ice cream were men in sleeveless shirts with either the brand of a beer or “pura vida” written on one side.

After dark I went out for food, and realized the town had changed from day to night. Birds gathered in the trees, and on wires above the sidewalk along the main street through Jaco. The ground under the wires is white with droppings and not a good place to walk. Black birds sit on the wires and in the trees and they talk to each other about what someone may have dropped outside the restaurants on either side of the street.

Men stood outside the bar with “two for one daquires,” talking to each other and any women who walked by, then came across the street to negotiate a price on an Indian meal for a large group, crossed back over.

Women in plumage began to appear on the sidewalks, stuffed into tight shiny dresses, on platform high heels that added inches to the length of their legs. One reached for my hand as I walked past, asking if I wanted some companionship. When I declined with a smile and as much grace as I could, she pouted and said she could make me more happy. The scent of her perfume lingered on my hand.

The next morning, a white man different than those of yesterday perched on a stool at the bar, then stood, like a jay or a magpie in a Costa Rica style, at a table where a man and woman waited for their breakfast. Skinny, unshaven, longish hair, blue jeans in need of a wash, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. He is animated talking politics, in English to the blond man, Spanish to the Tico woman.

It’s breakfast, I’m barely in possession of my first cup of coffee, and one of the first things I hear was, “I just feel privileged to be able to vote in two places, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Eventually he sat at another table and ordered breakfast. I ask if he gets to vote in Costa Rica, how long has he lived here?

Bill came down here about 30 years ago for the surf and never went home.

“Yeah, but I’m going to open a hostel,” he pauses, leans forward in a conspiratorial whisper. “That guy owns a hotel…” and nods toward the blond man he had been talking politics to.

“I’m going to open a hostel!…” he says in a much larger voice, as if the man who owns a hotel will be intimidated by a surfer hoping that American hostel transients will fund his dream of an endless summer.

But running a hostel is a lot of work.

“Yeah, but I know this Nicaraguan woman who can cook. I think it’ll work. Then I’m going to drive around this country, and look for my future ex-wife.” He waits for reaction to his clever discount of security, a line funny when he was 30 years-old and could discount romance so easily. Who will a 62 year-old surfer dude find who will be looking for him?

“Yeah, but there’s  so many women in this country. It’s unbelievable. I think the diet of rice and beans produces girls,” he says.

Bill came down to Costa Rica with a family, a long time ago. After a year, his wife returned Texas with his two boys, then four and eight. He does not dwell, but I see a small squall ripple across his eyes when he says, “I still don’t know what … why…” but he doesn’t finish the sentence.

His boys, raised by his ex-wife and her mother, she never remarried, “are killing it.” One works for Merrill Lynch, the other for Goldman Sachs. Bill goes back to Texas to see them a few times a year, he says, but it’s a year since he’s been. He has a child with a Costa Rican woman, too.

Bill has been out of the business of building surfboards for a while. He built boards with styrofoam blanks that he carved out of styrofoam blocks with a hot wire. He’d hand shape the boards, sand them down, build them with glass and resin.

“You don’t really need stringers (the wooden strips that give a board rigidity) in a styrofoam board,” he said, “but I like the way it looks. Especially with three stringers, one in the middle and one between the middle and the rail.”

He sold boards to people who appreciated the hand made.

But thousands of boards are available on the street running through Jaco. “There are more boards than there are surfers,” he says. “The hotshots and the corporations and the Chinese ruined the business. I think the Chinese should sell boards to the Chinese, and Americans should buy boards from Americans.”

But that wasn’t the only problem. “Me and my partner, we were building an inventory of surfboard blanks, but then he told me he wanted out. I told him we were just getting it going but he wanted out so I told him to just take what was his. He gave them to a guy we were selling the blanks to, who was going to pay him back as he sold boards.” Bill looks into the distance at what might have been a betrayal.

“He was a friend, too, used to be a friend, well, I guess he still is…” Bill’s voice trails off, then his momentum, never far off, returns to pick him up again.

“But I was ready to get out anyway, away from the fiberglass, the resins.” He seems remarkably healthy for a 61 year old surfer. “Yeah, at least I got that.”

But he knows all that sanding can’t be good for him.

“You gotta wear a mask. Well, you should wear a mask. I like to work where the wind blows through so you don’t have to wear one.”

He has a piece of property up in the hills he doesn’t want to sell. Only 20 minutes away, it’s at least 1,000 feet higher in elevation, maybe 2,000 feet, I can’t quite hear him, until he says, “it’s a lot cooler up there.” He’s tried to sell a piece of it, but anyone who looks wants the whole thing.

“I don’t want to sell the whole thing. In fact, I don’t want to sell it at all,” he says, and his face gets that same expression it had when he talked about his wife moving back to Texas with his sons, or when he talked about how his younger brother died six months ago, “one day before his 60th birthday,” which he repeats, as if that one day made it more tragic than if it had been a year before that birthday, as if his brother had just barely missed crossing some sort of finish line.

Bill finishes his breakfast while trying to figure out if one of his sons can put him on a payroll of sorts so Bill qualifies to receive whatever social security he may have earned before he became an expat in Costa Rica. “I think they left out the years I worked in Austin,” he says.

A little later he may go back to the house he has cut in half to turn into a hostel. “I got everything I need: beds, sheets. Everything, except for people to stay there.” He may go on the internet, but leans forward slightly to say, “I don’t really want to be seen, if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t want to guess what the conspiracy might be, so I play it safe. “Hard being seen without being seen,” I say.

“Yeah, I know that,” he replies, as if I had just insulted him.

But his flyers from a copy machine aren’t working, though everybody who’s seen them thinks they’re pretty cool. He’s thinking of changing the wording from “near downtown” to “near the beach, because people will think it’s not downtown and really it’s only three blocks off the main street.” He’s going to drop the nightly fee from $12 to $10, though everyone had been telling him he should charge $15.

Bill comes here to the Oasis nearly every day for breakfast. He thinks running that hostel will be the answer. Maybe it will won’t be like the cabinet building business, or the remodeling business, the surfboard business, the marriage.

“Thirty years,” he says, looking across the restaurant but seeing off into a distance, years more than miles. “I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. Where did it go?”


Geckos make little barking noises at each other, drawing lines, setting boundaries, establishing who gets which insects from what corner near the light that draws bugs near. Occasionally, some sort of night bird screeches, and I hear cooing from one of the trees in the garden.

I talked to a woman who told me she and her family were so afraid of lizards that when one got inside their home, near San Diego, they all stayed outside. When the lizard ended up in the couch, they had a neighbor take the couch away. As a six-year-old, my daughter K.C. would have taken that lizard outside the house and put it somewhere in the sun to be happy, then brought it something to eat.

This morning, a long-tailed bird with top feathers, it’s a magpie or jay in Costa Rica style, lands on the chair on the opposite side of the table from me. He eyes my granola. I paid good money for this breakfast, I tell him, it’s out of the question.

This is by far the fanciest restaurant I’ve been in on this trip. The waiter is deferential, even after he asks, “Are you staying here at the hotel, sir?”

Um, no. I wandered up from the beach.

He is still polite after I order the cheapest breakfast on the menu (but it’s my first choice! Regardless of price! I want to tell him. But I stick to ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ He knows I know.) It was a lovely walk through the sand, past tents where the nomads live, if you will, past elegant round huts with peaked roofs and just enough room for a bed and bathroom for upscale guests staying at the hotel.

I’m on my fourth or fifth cup of Costa Rica coffee (I really should throw out all that Starbucks I brought. What was I thinking!?) when I finally arrive, late and out of breath, to a semblance of awareness. I debate whether watermelon is a waste of red. But covered in yogurt and a sprinkle of granola, it serves as a vehicle, if not a fruit.

Papaya, now that’s another story.

Other guests of all ages slowly fill the veranda. The waiter treats us all equally, but he is starting to get behind as he brings fruit and yogurt, or French Toast, or pancakes or omelettes.

I can tell he’s not catching up by the way he asks the couple dithering over a decision of what to have for breakfast, as if world peace hung in the balance, if they needed just a little more time. He’s still a pro.

Some of these people can purchase anything on the menu, possibly purchase the hotel. But there is silence on the patio, even between couples. Especially between couples. No one seems to be particularly glad to be here, having breakfast. Maybe it’s too early, but there was more laughter at the small bakery outside the back door of the cheap hostel where I stay in the middle of town, when I headed down the beach a little after dawn on my first walk of the day.

An ancient, tiny man, bird-like and nearly lost in the plumage of an expensive Hawaiian shirt not that large, and red shorts, comes to the table with a full figured woman who is maybe a third his age. I want to believe she is his nurse, but her top falls open when she leans forward to sip her coffee and she makes no effort to conceal her breasts.

“Maybe we should buy some aloe body lotion,” she suggests. “Should I look for some After-bite?” Both comments take me to a place I don’t want to go. When the waiter comes, she flashes him a coy smile.

“How are you today?” she asks in a tone that is intimate all by itself. The smile lingers as she looks at her aged companion, as if gauging his reaction.

“I am good. And how are you?” replies the waiter, just within a boundary that makes it seem he may be slyly mocking her. She has a small silk scarf that had been around her neck. Now she pulls it nervously between her two hands, twining and untwining it between her fingers. Eventually she wraps it tightly around the index and middle finger of her left hand like a bandage to staunch a bleeding.

Pelicans are masters of wave energy. As waves push air up on their way to shore, pelicans glide just in front of the curl, wingtips inches from the water, getting lift.  At the last second, just before the wave rolls over, they peel off and out from the land to hitchhike on the next set on their way up the coast.

If they see a fish, they quickly point up, do a wing over then dive, wings raked back and beak straight down, into the water to catch a meal. Sometimes they sit there and swallow, sometimes they miss and immediately take wing.

After writing all morning, I walk a hundred yards to a cafe looking over the beach to brave a lunch of bacon and chicken and cheese. A middle aged Tico collects sticks and leaves left by the surf on the sand. He moves slowly in the hot sun; I wonder if he has been hired to clean up the beach or is scavenging firewood.

A young woman stands beside my table taking pictures of the shore. I look up and she says to me, “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” I compliment her Nikon, trying to place her accent, different than most I’ve been hearing on this trip but vaguely familiar.

“I’m from Israel,” she says. I ask what part. She says the north. I ask what town or kibbutz.

“You know Israel? Have you been there?” she asks.

“I was a volunteer in the Yom Kippur War, long before you were born,” I tell her. “They called us ‘Mitnavin.’ The volunteers. ”

She says something to the others at the table and they look at me with interest.

“How did you go there?” she asked.

“I was in Greece when Syria attacked Israel. The leader of Israeli Defense Forces, Moshe Dyan, the man with the eye patch? said ‘Haifez Assad believes it is 200 kilometers from Damascus to Tel Aviv. I’m here to tell him it is also 200 kilometers from Tel Aviv to Damascus.’ I said to myself, this is a war I can believe in, and volunteered.

“Because I wasn’t a Jew, they refused me at the embassy in Athens, so I flew into Tel Aviv. Eventually I got a job driving a forklift in Kyriat Shmona, where Katyusha rockets had fallen. I watched Israelis retake the Golan Heights.”

“You have given me goose bumps,” she says to me, pointing at her arm. “I have never met a volunteer who was not a Jew.”

A large bird, it looked just like an owl but maybe it just had its head tucked tight to its body because why would an owl be out at noon in this heat, glided quickly past the corner of the restaurant. I stand to get a better look but it is gone, down and round the corner before I can see more. The girl takes a few more pictures, tells me she has to run, they are going to catch a ferry.

The trail up to the waterfall is like walking along smooth rock trails that wind along the McKenzie or Deschutes, rivers of “my” Cascades, though I wouldn’t do those in flip flops. It’s what I had on, I was wearing my usual black swim/running shorts, the white shirt I live in but had wrapped around my waist. It took about 20 minutes and I was glad for the uphill workout, though it was not at all difficult.

At the falls, two men sat on rocks, playing chess. A man played a small Hang, the drum-like instrument I’d been introduced to in Santa Elena, sounding more like a steel drum than anything else, hollow notes ringing in the rock amphitheater with a metallic harmonic that played with notes of the flute played by the man sitting in a hollow nearby. They were musical elves where falls filled a pool deep and clear. Thirty or so people all clapped when a young boy made a 40 foot plunge into the water.

Older, stronger men did not go nearly as high.

Two girls from the falls were stopped on the road as I walked back to the main area of Montezuma. I asked what they could see.

“A parrot, a tiny one,” said the blond, pointing to a bird the size of a sparrow and not  much more colorful. She was from Newport, Oregon, about 180 miles from my home town but she’d never heard of it, she moved to Newport only a year and a half ago from Alaska, she said, but spends winters elsewhere to get out of Oregon’s rain.

We talk about salmon fishing in Alaska, where I had worked in South Naknek, and she said, “I did salmon too, and squid,” I think she said.  She had elegant tattoos, some from Mexico, others from Hermosa Beach, California, one tracking the vertabrae of her spine with either a pattern or letters in Chinese, I didn’t want to be close enough to look.

“I wanted to get one in Costa Rica but I haven’t met anyone here who does tattoos,” she said.

I said goodbye because I wanted one more walk up the beach. There was a small outcropping of red rock I’d seen this morning. The rock pure in color and smoothed by the ocean. I didn’t know what it was, but knew it was something I’d not seen ever before.

At the edge of the jungle, birds were singing about something that made them happy. Afternoon brought many people to the sand, to surf and swim and offer to the softening sun as much skin as they possibly could, which in some cases, was quite a lot.

The outcropping of red rock shattered the stone I brought as a small hammer, it was much harder than I thought, but a small piece came loose and I put it in my pocket  for the trip across the gulf to Jaco the next morning.